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The Last Word Calm, Cool Leadership

October 26, 2009
Related Topics: Career Development, The HR Profession, Employee Career Development, Featured Article
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If you manage long enough, you’ll probably pick up a lot of unconventional notions about how to be successful. Here’s one that I guarantee gets overlooked: It takes a lot of hard work to make managing look easy.

That may sound like counterintuitive gibberish, but stay with me here. What I’m saying is that over the course of my career, I’ve found that the default preference is for leaders who are loud, forceful and outspoken, whether that kind of leadership is needed or not.

Too many people look at a person who has great personal presence, or is quick with an opinion, and assume that these qualities automatically make for a successful leader.

That’s possible, of course, but I’ve also found that all too often, the over-the-top bravado exhibited by some managers is simply their way of overcompensating for a lack of tangible leadership talent. One large company I worked for seemed to value this kind of management demeanor over everything else—even if the executive they put so much stock in had zero management skill and the attention span of a gnat.

What actually works a lot more often is the solid and steady manager who doesn’t need to shout from the desktops to get things done. And this makes me wonder: Why isn’t there more demand for smart and talented bosses who can get things done by actually dealing with the people they are charged with leading in a quiet, understated way?

Why, for example, isn’t there more appreciation for people who manage like Joe Torre?

Torre is the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, but he’s probably more famous for his 12 years with the New York Yankees that produced four world championships. Funny thing is, Torre managed for 15 seasons and was fired by three other teams before his successful run with the Yankees.

The interesting thing is that Torre stayed true to himself and to his personal management style all along the way. He’s the same leader now that he has been incredibly successful that he was when he was not so much so—low key and understated, caring and thoughtful. He gets highly paid professional baseball players to follow him without yelling or histrionics.

“The argument could be made—probably should be made—that Torre is successful as a manager because he is successful as a human being,” says a profile on MLB.com. “He treats players like adult human beings. He knows there is no one-size-fits-all approach with 25 different people in the clubhouse. He knows that these are people, not merely a collection of physical attributes and statistical outcomes. He earns their respect by deserving their respect. His sincerity is persuasive and appreciated. You could not be a phony and have this kind of widespread regard.”

On the surface, Torre makes managing look easy, almost like he’s not managing at all, but that’s because he’s busy working behind the scenes instead of jumping up on the tables and exhorting his followers to take to the ramparts. That over-the-top management style can work, of course, but only in small doses because it runs out of steam pretty quickly.

And there’s one more thing we can all learn from Torre’s example: perseverance. How does someone who got fired three times rebound to not only manage the most famous team in sports, but lead that team to four championships? Most people would push to completely change their style after so many struggles, but Torre knew that he couldn’t be successful unless he stayed true to himself and his way of managing.

“What Joe does day in and day out is deal with issues as good as anyone I’ve been around,” says Dodger coach Don Mattingly, who also worked for Torre on the Yankees. “He doesn’t let anything go. I think in New York people might have felt he wasn’t tough enough on them, but that wasn’t the case. He was on every issue that happens.”

Yes, despite the seeming calm on the surface, guys like Torre are working like mad behind the scenes to manage those in their charge and make them successful. He works hard to make his job as manager look easy.

Is that counterintuitive? Maybe, but only because some people think it takes brashness and bravado to be a successful leader. Thank goodness there’s another way—a better way, in my book—and that there are great managers like Joe Torre who show that humble and hardworking leaders can quietly let their actions speak for themselves.

Workforce Management, October 19, 2009, p. 58 -- Subscribe Now!

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